Frustrations of a Gringo

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After living in Colombia, or Barranquilla more specifically, for almost a year now, I feel like I’ve mostly assimilated to the Costeño attitude and lifestyle. While I still stand out like a sore thumb due to my low level of Spanish and Gringo appearance, I’ve probably become as laid back and carefree as most of the coast-dwelling folk. With that said, I still get frustrated with some of (a lot of, actually) the ways they do things. Some frustrations I can acredit to cultural differences, but many things appear completely illogical. On my year long adventure, I’ve noticed many idiosyncrasies and I’ve compiled a list of those most infuriating. Now, this does have to come with a disclaimer so that I don’t offend or give anyone the wrong idea. I see things from my sheltered, South African perspective, so many of these examples may seem pretty ordinary to you.

Things that are a thing

  • Hooting (honking for you American folk) at everyone and everything. This is commonly used in short bursts to remind someone you’re driving next to them, or long and drawn out hoots when visiting a friend to let them know you’re outside. If using your hooter for the latter, it doesn’t matter if the person you’re visiting isn’t at home. You can keep hooting for at least 30 minutes. Also, don’t worry about time of day. Although you may think otherwise, 2am is a great time to do this.
  • Stopping to pick up or drop people off, anywhere. I’ve witnessed cars stopping in the middle of a main road or highway just to pick people up or let someone out. Often, other drivers don’t seem too bothered by this; they just drive around or wait, hooting all the while, until passengers have entered or exited the stationary vehicle.
  • Jesus. Being in Latin America, the Christian faith is pretty prevalent. When it comes to the plethora of different buses, (at least in Barranquilla), each bus is plastered with vinyls, signs, slogans and verses which add to the colourful and uniqueness of each journey. Jesus is obviously one of the more common icons you’ll see, alongside his arch nemesis: Taz the Tazmanian Devil, and several other fictional characters.
  • Noise. As mentioned in the previous section, the hooting in Barranquilla never ends, but sometimes, I forget about the hooting, because there is always sound coming from somewhere. Music is played at full blast, and as a result, people have to talk that much louder when trying to converse – even in their own houses. I get that I come from a culture that generally isn’t very loudly spoken and I am not a particularly vocal person, but I still feel like the general noise level here is abnormally high. Colombians don’t seem bothered by it at all. Whether it be a baby screeching at the top of its lungs for 4 hours straight, or even a car alarm that has been going off for an entire weekend (this is not an exaggeration), the locals seem to go on with their lives, seemingly unaware.
  • Waiting. It’s a pretty common stereotype that Latin Americans are laid back, and to some extent, even lazy. I don’t want to offend too many people here, but I feel like on the coast, this stereotype proves true. I had to learn how to be extremely patient moving to this spot on the Caribbean, as everything seems to take a fair bit longer. An experience I dread, and unfortunately cannot avoid, is going to the supermarket. Picking out groceries is a fairly simple task once you learn how to dodge the slow movers in the aisle, but once you attempt to find a queue to pay for your goods it’s all down hill. Cashiers are exceptionally slow and often appear incompetent when dealing with slight hiccups like an unreadable barcode. Usually when that happens, I leave the problem item behind to avoid any more time wasted. When it comes to the locals, they’re very used to waiting in lines as this just seems to be how things are done. Some are a little more crafty, and make the weekly grocery trip a family outing. This way they can spend that valuable time with loved ones, as well as send each member to a different queue when it comes time to pay. Whoever gets to the front first rallies the rest of the family, who bound over with two trolley loads of groceries, leaving you contemplating a family of your own after seeing these useful benefits. Patience is definitely something I’ve learnt living with the Costeños, but I still get really frustrated by the complete lack of efficiency.

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Riding shotgun, protecting the passengers from persistent sweetie sellers.

Things that are not a thing

  • Stopping at stop streets. And sometimes even traffic lights: This is a very rare occurrence in my city. The general consensus seems to be that when approaching a stop street, you should slow and do your usual short burst of hooting. This way, if someone is coming from the other direction, they’ll know you’re going first. I know, it sounds pretty dangerous, and quite frankly it is rather nerve-wracking, but I haven’t experienced or witnessed an accident as a result of this method… yet.
  • Traffic lanes. Roads here are in pretty bad condition in general, and there are only faint traces of road markings left. While you could probably make out how many lanes there are in a particular road, nobody really bothers. You can drive wherever you want, and overtake anyone on either side. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, you can even drive on the wrong side of the road. People might get a little annoyed by that, but who cares! Just give a little hoot and all should be fine.
  • Indicators. I’m pretty sure cars are equipped with indicators, but nobody seems to have found the need to use them here. You can turn a corner without giving others any visual indication. People must either deal with it or telepathically know what you’re about to do. I may have made it sound like being on the roads here is a death wish, and while most times I do fear for my life, I have witnessed very few accidents. I mean, there is the odd fender bender, but nothing too serious. Even though it’s really chaotic, there seems to be a method to the madness.
  • Mixing hard tack with soda. Different places enjoy alcohol differently, I get it. What I don’t get, is how bartenders cannot comprehend that I would like a Coca-Cola with a shot of vodka IN THE SAME GLASS. In my mind, no matter what country, culture or tradition you are from, that sounds like a fairly simple concept. Wrong. You’re much better off just sticking to beer, as the way they serve other types of alcohol here can get a little pricey. The local option is a fair bit cheaper; it’s called Aguardiente, which roughly translates to ‘fiery water.’ It’s a clear anise-flavoured liqueur derived from sugar cane which to me tastes pretty similar to Sambuca. Regardless of which poison you prefer, you’ll have a hard time getting a single shot of it, I’m afraid. The general practice here is to sell this ‘premium’ liquor by the bottle. Clubs and bars have difficulty getting their minds around the idea of just serving a single shot, so this adds to the confusion when I try and explain what I mean when I order a ‘vodka and coke.’ A particular experience that almost made me repeatedly ram my head against a wall was when I tried to order a drink from a hostel bar. Thinking they were more used to tourists and common western drinking practices, I thought this was the perfect place to get my ‘rum and coke.’ I even noticed that they were selling rum BY THE SHOT. So, I called the barman over and explained that I wanted a Coca-Cola and a shot of rum. He first looked a little confused, but once he realised my intention, he actually refused my request and said that that was a cocktail, and I could order a Cube Libre at the inflated price that they had on the menu. Like I said, you’re a lot better off sticking to beer. None of this vodka and coke “cocktail” business.
  • Talking on a cellphone like a normal human being. Cell Phones in Colombia are a pretty big thing. I mean, most of the world is pretty smartphone-obsessed right now, but compared to back home, I feel like Colombians are a little more attached. My year here has been the opposite, with my phone calling it quits after a couple of months in this harsh climate. Anyway, while I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a particular Colombian habit. I get the feeling they don’t trust the receiving end (microphone) of their phone, as when they’re on a call and it’s their turn to speak, they will move the phone away from their ear, and hold it right in front of their mouth to speak into it. Basically, they use the phone like a walkie-talkie, where it only allows communication in one direction at a time. This could have just developed after using speaker phone too often, which is also something they love to do, but the message I feel like they’re giving is: I’M TALKING NOW AND I DON’T CARE WHAT YOU’RE SAYING, LISTEN TO ME, SHUT UP, I’M TALKING.

I really could go on more of a rant about other things, but I feel like I’ve gotten myself worked up enough. I must also add, that while many of the idiosyncrasies and little habits of Colombians can infuriate me to no end, I have come to enjoy and appreciate living in Barranquilla. It is a concrete metropolis which seems to trap the heat and drain you of the will to do anything but sleep, but the people living here don’t let that stop them. They are always ready to party, while letting everyone within a 10 block radius know it.

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By the power of the Autobots, Daewoo, Honda, Toyota, Jesus and Tweety, I command thee: FLY!

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6 thoughts on “Frustrations of a Gringo

  1. Classic culture shock…I experienced much of the same in five years in Vietnam. Would love to visit Colombia and your post actually increases my curiosity. Barranquilla…Paul Theroux slates the place in one of his books. Mind you, he does the same hatchet job on Cartagena, which has more of a touristy reputation.

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  2. Hey Gearoid! Colombia is such an amazing country with so much to see and experience!
    Although we enjoyed our year living in Barranquilla, it doesn’t really have much to offer visitors, aside from the annual carnival! But I still think it’s worth stopping over on your way from Cartagena to Santa Marta 🙂

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  3. Very nice article! Barranquilla is a fabulous place; it’s hard to turn a corner without seeing something that puts a smile on your face. Can you contact me please?

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  4. Jajajajajajajajajajaja I am colombiano and I’m not mad about because most of it, it’s true. Matter with Coca-Cola and Vodka is that bars usually don’t sell alcohol by shots, unless it’s specifically a shot bars, and usually if it’s a shots bar, they offer just rum, aguardiente and scotch. If you want vodka and Coca-Cola you have to buy the bottle of vodka and the bottle of Coke and mix it yourself. It’s not rocket science.

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